The Pillow Is Too Fluffy: Why Group Travel Is Overrated

When it comes to travelling, I’ve never had to think twice about where to go. For some reason, the destination always finds me first. One late, rainy evening last spring, I was stuck in a traffic jam, randomly staring at the license plate of the car in front of me. 1-ICE-444.

All of a sudden, it dawned on me: it’s time for Iceland. Since she had a milestone birthday coming up, I persuaded my mother to come along. Everyone we talked to, discouraged us to go in winter. That’s exactly why we did.

Due to our little to zero experience with what could be severe weather conditions, we decided to hand over the arrangements to a local expert. Hence, I gave in to what I had sworn myself to stay away from: I signed up for an organised group tour. Packing all things fleece and my highly unsexy thermic underwear, I remember telling myself, throw your misconceptions overboard, all this takes is an open mind.

It’s 8 AM, day one. Our group has gathered at the breakfast table, one size fits all.

“Is this also your first time?”

I try to engage in some small talk with my neighbour. She fiercely shakes her head and starts listing the destinations she’s been to so far. Meet the mater familias of group travel: Y. has been doing this twice a year for the past decade.

“It was so hot in my room, I didn’t sleep very well.” 
I was hardly paying attention to the conversation four seats down from us, but Y. seems to have a third ear and instantly turns her head.

“I had the same problem. By the way, don’t you think the bathroom is a bit small? I hardly have any space for my toothbrush.” 
Y.’s reply is confirmed by two nodding heads across the table.

“My pillow was too fluffy, so I had it changed. Not the best hotel, I’ll make a note on the evaluation form.”

My right neighbour pulls out his pen and a small black notebook.

Quietly adding milk to my cereal bowl, I have no idea what they’re talking about. Considering the last three hostels I stayed in either had a hole in the wall, mosquitos in every corner or the scary sound of bats flying in between the ceiling and the roof — I feel like I’ve landed in paradise.

When we step onto the bus half an hour later, our tour guide points out the seats are not labelled, therefore “for everyone”. I get to take the spot next to him — lucky me, window sitter by choice — and start firing away my burning questions. “Where were you raised? What’s your favourite traditional dish? Which is your most important holiday?” You have to take advantage when the root is right next to you.

Just before sunset, he asks who’s in for an evening visit to local therms. I can’t suppress waving my hand frantically, even though there’s less than half a meter space between us. Something which isn’t typically noted in the brochure! I turn out to be the only one up for the ride. Everyone else seems to think the hotel swimming pool will do the same trick.

“When you go in, wet your hair or they’ll know you’re a foreigner.”

He points out the way to the ladies changing room, where I find myself surrounded by signs I can’t possibly decipher. I quickly lock my stuff away and tiptoe outside, trembling with biting cold. Once I’m in the hot water, staring at the stars, some sense of pride creeps up on me. Look at me being all Icelandic.

A few days later, I still can’t get over the serenity of the island. Even while shuffling on icy roads with numb toes, I feel such joy and calm being here.

As our guide makes his way to the top of a hill like it’s an easy dance, I’m trying my best to keep up with him. The fact my condition seems to have hit rock bottom doesn’t really help, neither do the strong whirlwinds that are testing my balance. Exactly what I need. My inner voice reminds me a personal challenge every once in a while makes me feel more alive. Move me anywhere but to a touristy beach and an all-in hotel.

When we’re halfway a magnificent waterfall route, our guide asks if anyone wants to return to the starting point, where there’s heating and coffee. One third of the group decides to head back. Already? It’s not like we’re climbing Mount Everest. As I watch them walk down, I realise it’s the same horde who bragged about countless faraway destinations the night before.

Meanwhile, my mother, never a traveller pro, has elegantly bypassed a few panting groupies more than half her age (and me). Like there’s no stopping her on the way to the top. That’s the womb I come from!

By the end of our hiking adventure, darkness sets in and so does hunger. After a quick pitstop at the hotel, we stop by a local pizza place for the second night in a row.

“Again?” (Sigh)
“Yes, again. Honestly, there’s nothing else around here.”

Observing the group around the dinner table, I notice half of them are dressed as if they’re anticipating a fancy date. Formal shirts, branded sweaters and polished shoes on an outdoor, minus 12 degrees holiday. Far from comparable to the fleece sweater I’ve stubbornly been wearing for the past three days, since I figured out it’s the only one warm enough. I feel completely out of tone, yet ever so adventurous.

Truth be told though, I’m not the best of backpackers out there. I might have Dutch blood running through fifty percent of my veins, my caravan experience is extremely limited. Usually, I need time to gently lower my hygiene standards before I’m able to cross my comfortable boundaries.

But once I’m over them, I’m over them. In return for priceless, postcard worthy nature views which silence my always noisy brain, I willingly give in to hairy legs, greasy hair and unflattering sweat stains. Most of my travel highlights are situated beyond those borders.

It would have been better if everyone had created a profile beforehand. Don’t you guys agree?”

Twirling her glass of red wine, Y. refers to the app set up to exchange information and contact details before our departure date.

“And we should have all added our picture.”

I hear her say the words while she’s scraping some leftover pieces of dessert off her plate. For the next ninety seconds, I’m unable to pull down my frown. Only one translation for the statement she just threw onto the table: Tinder for travellers.

This day and age, if you want to play the digital dating field, be prepared to go through the pains of fifteen selfies before one can pass for appropriate profile material. Tough enough, you would think. So why, oh why would you need to examine my looks before we cross paths on one single journey?

Whatever happened to life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get? The beauty of wandering on Earth is in the not knowing who might surprise you along the way.

“At least we got to check each other’s ages.” 
My mind had drifted off, but T.’s remark brings it back to the pizza place. 
“Which I’m so grateful for. That’s why I signed up for this trip instead of the next one. I mean, there I would have been surrounded by old people.”

Oh S. If only you realised how inappropriate your comment is, considering my mother sits right next to you. She quietly looks down at her plate. I read her mind and it breaks my heart. I know she has never cared about a birthday as much as she does this year. The looming number six is not an easy one to swallow. That’s why she’d been looking forward to this trip so much, to put her silent struggles aside for a short while.

Why act as if people over forty are patients with an awkward disease you should avoid at any cost while on the move? The more life experience, the better the stories. Besides, what does “old” even mean? People are people, not numbers.

It reminds me of Jan from Denmark, whose hand I shook the day after he turned 69. When we ran into each other at a dodgy Internet cafe, he was wrapping up his four month trip through South America. That was two years ago. Up to this day, I regularly receive elaborate email updates of his travels through Asia.

On the list of the next scheduled trip, I also saw people travelling together,” J. chips in. “On this one, most of us are single, fortunately. Couples are anti-social, they make you feel like a third wheel.”

Need a nuance or two, anyone?

I once met a German couple in the deserted midst of the Suriname jungle. They were close to triple my age, but boy, did they have stories to share over late night drinks under starry skies. Hardly any outer corner they hadn’t been to yet, although their bucket list seemed endless. We spent a week throwing back and forth names of places we still longed to see. About a month ago, I received a postcard; they beat me to Chile.

As soon as our empty plates are taken away, everyone lines up to pay separately. On the bus back to the hotel, someone suddenly blocks the seat I was about to take.

I’m saving this one for my roomie.” She smiles sheepishly.

“But remember he said…” Never mind.

I decide on one more tea before I call it a night. At the hotel lobby, I run into one of the girls of our group.

“There’s still an unlabelled seat available here,” she chuckles.

Two hours later, tears of laughter are running down my cheeks. How G. went for a run in Buenos Aires and couldn’t remember the way to her hostel. How she went shopping for underwear in San Francisco at 2 AM because she realised she hadn’t packed any. How she ran for the wrong bus back from a closed nature park in the pouring rain in Costa Rica, after having slipped and fallen in the mud.

Those are the stories that sound like music to my ears: about accepting adventures in a world which isn’t perfect, but natural. I don’t travel as much, but when I do leave my box, it’s because I feel the urge to go outside. Not to stay within a fabricated environment where everyone speaks my language and I can sip my tea just the way I like it.

I prefer less destinations, yet intense experiences, over a long list of quick stopovers designed by someone else. I doubt you see it all if you never reach the top of the hill or are unwilling to look beyond first impressions. Which raises the question: what makes you a world traveller?

As I’m brushing my teeth in front of the mirror, I wonder if I have any regrets. I firmly decide I don’t. This kind of group travel and I don’t match, but at least I tried — and learned. The whole experience did give me a piece of Iceland, and we get along perfectly fine.

My final words are for the young woman who on day four said she repeatedly chooses organised group tours because she fears she’s unable to do it on her own: throw your misconceptions overboard, all it takes is an open mind.